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All about community orchards

BY Joy Skipper

27th Oct 2021 Life

All about community orchards

These orchards have a mission to bring people closer to where their food comes from

Many people have become distanced from where their food comes from, both mentally and physically, but since the start of the 2020 pandemic there appears to have been an increased interest in home-growing food, with waiting lists for allotments in the UK increasing over the past 18 months, and an increase in sales of vegetable seeds. 

This could be for a range of reasons, from people wanting to grow and eat more of their own food, to learning new skills, or even just to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of being outside and eating food fresh from the garden. 

Growing food involves a simple understanding of nature, practical skills and patience, some of which can be learned by growing food within a community, enabling growers to learn from others’ skill and experience. Growing food in communities may also have the potential to improve community food security, increase community education around food, improve social wellness, and improve knowledge of the importance of biodiversity within our environment.

The concept of community orchards was introduced by the charity Common Ground in 1992, and many can be found throughout the UK. 

Suffolk Traditional Orchard Group defines a traditional orchard to be “five or more unsprayed fruit and nut trees on vigorous rootstocks “at low densities” in grazed, or at least grazeable, ground cover, with their canopies no more than 20m apart”, and until recently, most farms and larger households would have had their own orchards or small collection of fruit trees, growing varieties of fruit that were suited to the local soil and habitat. 

Orchard

Community orchards were also grown close to colleges, churchyards, hospitals or other institutions to provide food for local people—past documentation shows that orchards were common in medieval times and that landowners and clergy often provided fruit trees for the local poor.

There is widespread cultural heritage surrounding orchards—at one time landowners paid their manual labourers in apples or apple cider and a gentleman’s fruit collection was an important part of the social landscape, a mark of status. 

"Community orchards can be used as an educational resource"

There was also an abundance of varieties of fruits and nuts that were once deemed as characteristic of localities, with great names such as Chivers Delight, Winter Pomeroy and Barnock Beauty.  This has since been lost due to the influx of higher yield varieties favoured by supermarkets. 

British Apples & Pears give tonnage sales to UK supermarkets for only five apple varieties, yet the UK have developed over 2,500 varieties of apples, out of the 7,000 that exist worldwide, thus providing us, the consumer, with less choice and less flavour.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species report that, “Ninety per cent of traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950s, due to neglect, development or conversion to intensive modern orchards, which have a negative impact on biodiversity”.

A change in lifestyle and attitudes to food may also have contributed to this decline, plus an increase in the import of foreign foods, change of agricultural subsidies, or the decline of small farms in the UK.

Apples in a basket

The orchard habitat is actually an assortment of several habitats, all within the same area—the tree habitat which provides blossom and fruit, plus cracks and crevices in the trees where birds and bats can nest.

But also, with wide-spaced trees, which is traditional in orchards, the grassland can also provide a home for fungi, small rodents and insects.  With thousands of species of insects, mites and bugs within an orchard, it provides a very diverse ecosystem, which is important—to offer an environment which encourages pollinators including bees, pollinators of fruit trees, without which there would be no fruit.

Food and culture are interwoven—foods and recipes can be used to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next and traditional orchards were often the centre of village life, multi-use environments, with all generations enjoying the space, not only for growing, but also for celebrations—apple day festivals or wassails, or just purely as a relaxing space—like an open-air village hall.

The loss of orchards over past years means not only the loss of space, but also the loss of shared experiences and activities that enable people from differing backgrounds and generations to come together, working towards a shared goal.

Community orchards are a great example of sharing the experience of growing food, where a community group works together with local authorities, or local landowners, to optimise a green space, bringing people together to share or learn new skills.  

Community orchards can be used as an educational resource, teaching both adults and children, not only about food but also new skills such as wildlife watching, fencing, the maintenance of plants, the importance of diversity and social interaction, and older skills that have been passed down through generations.

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